My reflection on #1WkNoTech is threefold. First, modern society’s dependence on and frequent use of technology tends to make us less happy. Second and in spite of No. 1, everything from work to play has so inscribed technology into our lives that it’s hard to pull away, even if we realize it would behoove us to do so. And third, the notion of technology is a nebulous one — it can be as wide as anything created or manipulated by humans or as narrow as anything with a screen and buttons — with new and powerful technology usually interpreted as more distracting, more destructive and more likely to compromise intrinsic human ideals such as innocence, imagination and togetherness.
Sometimes I inadvertently play a game of #1DayNoTech. During the summer, I spend a day in Canal Park and at the beach; during the winter, I build a snow fort with my much-younger cousins. OK, it’s not always a full day, but sometimes it’s close, and by the end of it, I feel satisfied in a way being in front of a screen all day isn’t able to replicate. During #1WkNoTech, people, albeit facetiously, tweeted about their newfound appreciation for the little things in life, the things overlooked and overshadowed in a world where technology seems to be everywhere. Putting the phone away and shutting down the computer tends to make us feel closer: closer to people, closer to nature, closer to ourselves. So why are we so reluctant or even unable to pull away?
What makes faithfully (not facetiously) executing a project like #1WkNoTech next to impossible is the degree to which technology has permeated our institutions, and as a result, seemingly every corner of our lives. A week without technology likely means a week without work, as sending emails, talking on the phone and using the computer are vital activities at most places of employment. A week without technology likely means a week without school, as email and Moodle are the forums in which information is shared, direction is given and business is handled; and as Google Docs is the medium through which many students submit work, discuss ideas and receive feedback. Finally, a week without technology is a week uninformed and disconnected from the rest of the world, as the Internet is our great library, our familiar meeting place, our answer to questions that used to be unanswered or put on hold.
But what is technology? A day building a slipshod-but-functional igloo with my cousins feels fun, rewarding and most importantly, distant from the cold, metallic glow of technology. Where would I have been, though, without that shovel in my hands? That hat on my head? Those boots on my feet. These were all inventions, new objects at one time or another. They were engineered, produced and then mass-produced, improved upon and commercialized. Unequivocally, they are technologies. And that’s where the rules governing #1WkNoTech become blurred. We associate our computers and phones with our increasingly impersonal, perhaps jaded world, but we don’t do the same with shovels and shoes. While these objects behave differently and serve varying purposes, the old are no less technological than the new. How long must an object exist before it ceases being technology, if ever? When it comes to eliminating objects from our lives during a project like #1WkNoTech, why do our brains immediately target some technologies but not others?
Benefits of pulling away
A common theme during #1WkNoTech was the sense of relief, calm and happiness that accompanied time spent away from computers and other advanced technologies. Ashlyn said a man who appeared to be homeless was having more fun playing with a puppy than she has seen experienced by people playing on their phones. Her observation speaks on two levels. First, this man, who presumably has nothing — no phone, no laptop, no reliable ways to stay warm and keep from going hungry — was made happy by one of life’s simpler pleasures. He didn’t need expensive software or the latest game; he just needed another living thing. Second, Ashlyn took the time to observe this scene and make the connection between the man’s happiness and the lack thereof when it comes to people playing on their phones. Would she have made that observation if, in that moment, she had been one of them?
A step beyond simply observing a scene in the physical world, this Twitter user and #1WkNoTech participant had lunch with an old friend. What’s more, Pressure Pusher, who I can only presume is a sleepy yellow dog, didn’t feel tempted to pick up his or her phone during lunch. For technology’s ability to connect people near and far — email, texting, phone, etc. — it is an equally if not stronger force of division. I’ve been in stimulating conversations with friends and, for a reason I can’t completely explain, I find myself reaching for my phone to check if Beyonce has left me a voicemail or something. Eradicating such habits can benefit our relationships and make us more desired and conscientious lunch partners.
The world seems to hold less magic and fewer possibilities as we age. But aging coincides with the passage of time, which coincides with the evolution and increased potency of technology. Growing up, I had no brothers. And while my twin sister was a more than adequate playmate, at times she didn’t feel like engaging in my games. So I would head outside with a ball under my arm and play games like Amy’s. It was, surprisingly, fun. About 15 years later, I don’t even consider such games an option when I’m bored or unsatisfied with whatever is on TV. These games probably have more power over us when we’re young, when our imaginations are ripe and we’re catching a pop fly in the World Series instead of a ball off the wall. But Amy’s account suggests it’s not simply a matter of growing up; it might also be the fact we find other ways to entertain ourselves and don’t give such games a chance.
A complete reliance
This Twitter user and #1WkNoTech participant was lost looking for a quality restaurant without assistance from the Internet. Her decision to stay home instead of walking into a restaurant blind — without reviews — not only illustrates our dependence on technology to give us the information necessary to make decisions but also indicates we have been programmed to distrust that which we do not know of, that which has not been documented online. Another student posed in a tweet the question whether a romantic relationship is real if the participants don’t post the relationship to Facebook. In our documentary society, we seem to have lost the ability to simply live; we look to technology, namely the Internet, to authenticate and make official the things we see, hear and feel. Without technology’s stamp of authenticity, we are less likely to trust what we observe and encounter in physical reality.
Poor Paulina here had to ask another human being whether the USC football team won its game against Cal last Saturday. The Internet and its arms have become in the last five, 10 years our encyclopedia and our newspaper. It can tell us whether it’s going to rain tomorrow, whether the snake over there is poisonous and whether our symptoms point to the common cold or something more serious. With the Internet, the answer to nearly every know-able question rests in our hands and on our laps. People today have little reason to memorize or inquire a stranger, as the information we seek can be obtained in a much more efficient, reliable and impersonal way.
It’s really no wonder Granny didn’t roll the dice with an unknown restaurant and Paulina felt weird asking USC’s fate. Technology is inscribed into almost everything we do and consume. Some college professors chide students for having their laptop open or phone out during class, but their very classes would cease functioning without the benefit of technology. During #1WkNoTech alone, I turned in three assignments online and had more than 10 remote conversations integral to my responsibilities as a student. In elementary school, I used to get physical worksheets, which I would turn in to the teacher’s tray on his or her desk. In college, I receive prompts and assignment descriptions online, and I turn in my work remotely, as well. Our schools, our offices and our establishments have employed technology in such a way it is a muscle memory, an aspect that has infiltrated our private lives.
A matter of circumstance
But where should we draw the line, and if we’re trying to tame our use of technology, with what should we draw it? Like a stylus that accompanies an iPad, a pencil is technology. Like a laptop on which we can stream music and podcasts, this Twitter user’s old radio is technology. By the letter of #1WkNoTech, her antique radio is a “no-no.” By the letter of #1WkNoTech, doors and stairs should be outlawed, as well. Technology is defined by its ability to solve problems and assist with tasks artificially, in way the natural world doesn’t afford. A door, like the latest computer, solves problems and assists with tasks that otherwise would go unaddressed by nature.
It’s an ostensible argument that a computer is clearly a feat of technology and a paperback book isn’t. But why does that argument seem at least superficially true? Both objects were created through the use of elaborate machinery; both objects solve problems or assist with tasks; and both objects do not naturally occur in the world. The fact books (roughly as we know them today) came about with the advent of the printing press almost 600 years ago seems to tempter their identity as a technology as compared to computers, which didn’t begin evolving until the middle of the 20th century. But like sundials versus iPhones, there are only subjective ways to argue books are less a technology than computers. The time and order in which we invent things is largely determined by circumstance. If humans were to redo the last 10,000 years, it’s possible computers would be invented before the standardized paperback book, in which case computers might seem less a technology than books. Conventional wisdom tells us computers are much more complex and challenging to design than books, so computers surely would be developed first. But who’s to say, while we have computers, spaceships and TVs; there isn’t an incredibly simple invention we haven’t yet made that would ease a particular aspect of life? We can design an unmanned spacecraft capable of traveling millions of miles and landing on a distant planet, but we can’t (or chose not to) design and mass-produce a car that travels 100 miles to a gallon of gas.
What’s interesting about #1WkNoTech is the discussion it inevitably triggers. Participants will have different opinions of what technology is and isn’t, and they will have different opinions of what constitutes a use of technology: Is passively watching a movie in a theater (as opposed to actively searching for and watching a movie online) a use of technology? What about elevators versus stairs? Stop signs versus stoplights? Not only does #1WkNoTech trigger a consideration of what technology is; it also causes us to consider the role technology plays in our lives, what technology adds and subtracts and how it can be used to maximize its benefits and minimize its drawbacks.
To sum up, technology seems to make us less happy. At the very least, pulling away from technology seems to improve our mood. Not only that, pulling away increases our capacity to soak in and appreciate the world around us. It can improve our relationships and help us reconnect with old friends. It can let us have more fun and make us more fun around which to be.
Regardless of the benefits, pulling away from technology is hard. Technology in all its iterations is so tightly woven into the fabric of modern society that we’re nearly helpless to work, learn and play without it. To function in today’s workplaces, today’s schools and today’s communities, technology is an ingredient that can’t be replaced. If we have access at home and in public to the powerful, highly addictive tools that propel or professional and academic worlds, we are almost helpless in efforts not to use them. They have become so inscribed into us, such a part of us that we’re essentially programmed to use our phones, computers and TVs, even if we don’t really want to.
Lastly, the objects we tend to regard as technology and those we tend to regard as “things” — as if they have always been around — are grouped largely by social and historical constructs. Participants in #1WkNoTech probably thought not to use their computers. But they probably didn’t consider not to read books. If technology is defined as manmade objects that solve problems and assist with tasks, then computers and books fall into the same basket. The conventional wisdom computers are technology and books aren’t is based largely on the fact books preceded computers, which is the result of circumstance, not one being less a technology than the other. Someone ducking a conversation with a stranger by burying his or her face in a book is hiding behind technology in precisely the same manner as someone burying his or her face in an iPad.
So while pulling away from technology seems to make us feel better and soak in more of the intrinsic properties of life, pulling away isn’t so easily don.e Our institutions use technology heavily; technology is the medium through which information is shared, decisions are made and business is handled. It seems unreasonable to expect people to pull away from technology in their private lives. What constitutes technology, though, is up for debate. Using a letter of the law approach, it seems objects that have existed for hundreds and even thousands of years are as much technology as objects being created in laboratories as I write. In that case, #1WkNoTech seems an even bigger ask.